Odunde is an annual street festival which brings a genuine taste of Africa to South Street, Philadelphia. Beginning in 1975, the festival showcases cultural artefacts of African origin including crafts, clothing and jewellery.
Food, however, is the biggest attraction at Odunde, with a variety of vendors rarely seen at other regional festivals serving all sorts of African, Caribbean and soul food. The festival draws vendors from not only America but from an array of African and Caribbean countries as well.
South Street is a prime venue for the festival as it is one of Philadelphia’s oldest, historically African-American neighbourhoods. During the period of the festival, it takes over a dozen-block radius in the Graduate Hospital neighbourhood, gathering hundreds of vendors from around the world.
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Odunde is a Yoruba word which means “Happy New Year”. The carnival is the creation of Lois Fernandez, a political and cultural activist and her friend Ruth Arthur. Fernandez had met Nigerian practitioners of a traditional Yoruba faith as early as 1963.
In January 1972, Fernandez travelled to Oshogbo, Nigeria, West Africa, where she was inspired by the Oshun Festival of the Yoruba people. She visited the Osun River with Nigerian twin artists Seven-Seven as part of a local celebration honouring Oshun and thought that something similar could be done with Philadelphia’s rivers.
After returning to Philadelphia, Fernandez and Arthur organized the first Odunde Festival. It took place in April 1975 as the “Oshun Festival”. Their goal was to bring together the community and to foster awareness and pride in black history and culture. The first procession started from Fernandez’s house on Madison Square. Obailumi Ogunsey, a Yoruba priest who Fernandez had met in 1963, was the officiant at the maiden event. Fernandez also invited choreographer Arthur L. Hall and his dance troupe to participate.
In the eighth year of celebrating the festival, ODUNDE Inc. was formed to support the local cultural activity and the name ODUNDE was adopted. ODUNDE, Inc. currently serves as an educational and cultural organization that also sponsors year-round programs featuring the African Diaspora, in addition to the annual Odunde Festival.
Fernandez passed on in August 2017 but her daughter, Oshunbumi Fernandez, continues to keep the Pan-African flag flying high in Philly as she serves as the current CEO of ODUNDE Inc.
Beyond buying from indigenous vendors, the festival’s authentic African marketplace guarantees shoppers articles from countries in Africa, the Caribbean and South America. An array of live music and performances also take place on designated stages throughout the entire day.
Streets are blocked off to make way for the thousands of visitors who pass through the neighbourhood. Festival-goers stroll the area from 23rd and Lombard streets to Grays Ferry Avenue and Christian Street, and from 20th and South Streets to 24th and South Streets over the South Street Bridge to the Schuylkill River. There, fruit, flowers, honey and other offerings are thrown into the river to honour the Yoruba river Orisha Oshun.
Participants tend to wear white or dress in traditional African clothing. They are accompanied by drummers, dancers, and vendors. After ceremonies at the river, the procession returns to a festival area, reminiscent of a Nigerian market, for music and other entertainment.
Held on the second Sunday in June, the celebration is now the largest African celebration on the east coast of the United States and one of the largest and longest-running African American street festivals in the United States.
This year, the 44th edition of the festival comes off this Sunday, June 9, 2019.